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November 21, 2012, Wednesday

Halifax, Washington and Turkey-US relations

Washington is calm. A long election campaign has finally been concluded and the American people have made their decision. I have come to Washington from Halifax, where I attended the Halifax International Security Forum. Organized for the fourth time, the Halifax Forum discussed many important issues.

Similar to last year, Syria was the top issue in Halifax. Few US analysts predicted a major change in US policy on Syria. While the new formation of the Syrian opposition umbrella is welcome, there is still little appetite for providing arms to the opposition. Patriot missiles can be stationed on Turkish territory in order to respond to Turkey's need for solidarity with its allies. That said, the Patriot missile system is largely defensive in nature and seems to be aimed at deterring the Syrian regime from using any sort of weapon against Turkey in a potentially last-minute desperation situation.

However, there were also whispers noting that Patriot missiles have the capacity to shoot down planes if that was desired. Technically, Patriots could support a no-fly zone, but all of these issues would require absolute determination to defend such a zone, something that may have considerable consequences. Senator John McCain's lament about US policy on Syria demonstrated a stark contrast to what we have become accustomed to see from the Obama administration.

One of the issues that keep Washington pundits busy is the choice that President Barack Obama will soon have to make about the much-courted position of secretary of state. The frontrunners are Senator John Kerry and US Permanent Representative to the UN Susan Rice. Rice is being favored due to her relationship with President Obama, but the president has to grapple with the opposition of foreign policy heavyweights such as Senator McCain and the State Department itself. Kerry enjoys the support of the Senate and his name has been circulated around for secretary of defense. Rice would probably be more interventionist than Kerry but she also does not want the US to plunge into a new front in Syria.

Regardless of who will eventually get the much-coveted job, US-Turkey relations will continue to harbor the challenges they currently face. There seems to be some sort of weariness on dealing with Turkey here. The recent exchange of comments on Israel and Gaza illustrate the differences between the two countries. President Obama is more likely to make Iran a legacy of his second term rather than indulging in a new Middle East initiative. Obama will try to bring Iran to the table and strike a grand bargain with Tehran. There is little appetite for engaging in a new Middle East process, especially under the current conditions.

Everywhere in Washington there is one issue that inevitably comes up when talking about Turkey. That issue is press freedom. There is an overwhelming consensus that there are considerable limitations to press freedom in Turkey. Washington is closely watching this issue and it appears to be only a matter of time before this will be more forcefully raised. Decision-makers here seem to be looking for the right form and timing to make US displeasure known. Once the new administration is in place, a more nuanced position might be articulated by Washington.

Turkey's economic performance is widely praised. Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan is commended for his leadership in keeping the economy afloat and growing while maintaining fiscal and economic discipline. A bilateral free trade agreement between Turkey and the US is likely to be taken up by the new US Congress. Given the extremely skeptical view in Congress, it remains unclear how such an agreement can be pushed through without significant work.

The Turkish-American agenda is full of promises. That said, there are increasing clouds on the horizon as well. Traditionally, Turkish-American relations have always had to be nurtured. Currently, they are very much conditioned by what is happening on Turkey's southern border. In the next two years we might see a gradual shift toward what is happening inside Turkey as well.

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